WHAT or WHO is an Arab? It must be one of the most difficult Ethnic terms to define. There are as many definitions as there are dictionaries. When “Arabic” people are asked this question one hears of definitions and opinions that etymologically brackets the terms within Christian, Muslim as well as Jewish context. The Oxford English Dictionary has the following defining terms: Araby: a native of Arabia, and Arab: one of a Semitic race inhabiting Saudi Arabia and neighbouring countries. Both definitions leave the questioner none the wiser. Are Palestinian Christians Arabs? Are Jewish Iraqi Arabs? Although Arabs collectively maybe a nation but there is no Arabic nationality in the legal sense. A man who calls himself an Arab could hold Syrian, Egyptian, Saudi or any number of the “Arabic” countries passport but none of them identifies him as an Arab national.
Is she an Arab, confident, liberated and revealing? A Lebanese maybe.
Any more or less than her? A true Arab?
This guy is most probably an Arab nomad according to this article a true Arab.
… while this once famous Egyptian singer was a townie which makes him an Arab by association
Since there is no legal status for an Arab citizen, we are confronted by a quandary. Nevertheless, it is assumed an Arab has many bonds that bind him towards other Arabs living or dead. We can start whether the Arabic language is a binding factor. There is Arab speaking Jew of Iraq or Egypt or the Arabic speaking Christian of Lebanon. Are they Arabs? I am sure there will be as many different answers as there are questions from these people and more from their Muslim neighbours. I can even ask whether the Arabic-speaking Muslim of Egypt and Algeria an Arab? Many of those questioned do consider themselves Arab but not all, especially some Lebanese who think they are Phoenicians. Is a Christian Lebanese of equal Arab status as the Muslim Shi’a Hezbollah fighter from Southern Lebanon both could be holding Lebanese passports? If looks can tell us anything, looking at the above photos can it solve our conundrum? These questions are not meant to be rhetorical only but also to encourage any brave souls to volunteer a reply.
If we turn to culture for help, we find there is hardly a pan-Arabian culture we can identify. Digging deep in the sands looking for what the BBC calls high-brow, middle or even low-brow culture I find the desert is almost barren. Except for minor literary culture in Egypt and Lebanon, the binding Arab culture is Islam, but that had inadvertently imprisoned and stifled individual excellence in Art, Science and Humanities. The effect of which caused by anarchic and subjective morality coupled with a shift from reason to sentiments and passion.
Further complications arise when, in Iraq for instance; colloquially, people distinguish the Bedouin from indigenous peasantry by name “Arab”; classifying and separating their ethnicity from the rest of Iraqi people. Perhaps then this suggests that speaking Arabic is not the criteria. Since speaker of Arabic or Semitic or a native of Arabia (Where ever that is defined) is not enough a criteria.
Yet we see The Arab League has under its wings the following countries: Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, the Palestine Liberation Organization, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. They cannot be serious so no wonder as an organisation hardly anyone takes it seriously more of a dysfunctional unrepresentative organisation that cracks under the mildest strain. More than likely Arabism is what divides all these countries.
Some Arab leaders defined an Arab in these words: "Whoever lives in our country, speaks our language, is brought up in our culture and takes pride in our glory is one of us." We may compare with this a definition from a well-qualified Western source, Professor Gibb of Oxford: "All those are Arabs for whom the central fact of history is the mission of Muhammad and the memory of the Arab Empire and who also cherish the Arabic tongue and its cultural heritage as their joint possession." Both definitions give the meaning of both cultural and religious significance without getting into the “heart” of the word. Our search must now be both historical and linguistic so we can arrive at the meaning of this elusive definition. We need to go back to biblical time and come forward.
During the course of these centuries, the significance and meaning of the word have steadily changed with a standard usage completely lost. Some people think the etymology of the word has Semitic roots meaning “West” for individuals who come from west of the Euphrates River but I consider this to be highly improbable. By connecting it with the Hebrew word for dark or Steppe-land “Arabha” or “Erebh” meaning disorganised seems a more plausible proposition. “The association with nomadism is borne out by the fact that the Arabs themselves seem to have used the word at an early date to distinguish the Bedouin from the Arabic-speaking town and village dwellers and indeed continue to do so to some extent at the present day” The Arabs in History, by Bernard Lewis, In fact, the first account of Arabia and Arabs found in the tenth chapter of Genesis calling many tribes of the area as "Arab" Also “Arab” makes its appearance in an Assyrian inscription in 850 BC. From then on there is frequent reference to Aribi, Arabu and Urbi indicative of a nomadic and desert origin when giving Camels or tributes to their Assyrian lords. From the Syrian historical records, we deduct that these areas do not include the flourishing sedentary civilisation of south-western Arabia. The inhabitants in later books of the Old Testament would, however, identify them around 530 BC when the terms Arabaya begin to appear and later as commanders in Xerxes’ Persian army.
From now this argument will become messy - very messy and I blame the ancient Greek for this!
We learn from early Greek writings, around 400 BC when the word Arabia was first used combining all the Semitic people of the peninsula, analogues to Italia and Germania and later Britannia. Under the same heading, they included the people from the eastern desert of Egypt between the Nile and the Red Sea. Contact between Romans and Arabs was so close, Philip of Arabia “the Arab” (Syrian) became Caesar who even presided in Rome over the capital’s millennial celebrations. We had to wait for the rise of Islam to learn more about the use of the word from information gathered mainly from central and northern Arabia. We can also detect that the concentration of Islamic activities was in the Northern half of the peninsula in the Syrian/Iraq borders. As a historical source, The Qur’an also confirms that the exclusive use of the term Arab was the Nomads and never the townsfolk of Mecca and Medina. Yet the language of Mecca and Medina and other towns, as well as the Qur'an itself, is described as Arabic.
It was the Arab-speaking Muslim world which conquered the lands of the Parthian kingdom and was to dominate right across Northern Africa reaching the edges of Europe and the Iberian Peninsula. With this hegemony came Muslim religious influences as well as Arabic ethnical Culture. The Jews and the Christians accompanying this warring army were to have an acculturative effect in the Arabic way of life without proselytising into the Muslim religion. The confluence of a vast number of varieties of people with different race and languages the Muslims exercised their influence as rulers and masters. The distinction between Nomads and townsfolk became blurred and Arab gradually came to identify all those who spoke the Arabic language. With the increasing number of people converting to Islam, Arabism gradually transgressed to more of a universal Islamic ideology identified by faith. Culture and administration were to later effect a change to a heterogeneous race with the wars of conquest coming to an end.
Contribution to "Arab medicine", "Arab philosophy", etc. of those who were of Arab descent, however, was relatively small. The architects of these particular cultures were the Christians and Jews while gradually becoming “Islamic” associated more with culture as much as with religion. The variegated culture of that Empire produced by men of many races and religions, but in the Arabic language and conditioned by Arab taste and tradition. The spread of Islam, however, also meant the spread of Arabic whether colloquial or classical as in the writing of the Qur’an. This was to take further hold with the arrival of the Turks when all marginal languages, such as Aramaic, west of Persia ceased their significance. This would effectively blend further the different backgrounds and religious affiliations effectively harmonising the heterogeneousness of the communities. This meant that definition of Arabic identity split into two. One bearing the Nomadic origin of the Bedouins as the true Arabs and the other was becoming a social rather than an ethnic term.
As one can imagine, however, that with such an austere and dominating majority as the Ottomans, the minority faiths were organised along religiopolitical lines with their own leadership and laws - the Millet system. The majority belonged to the Ummat al-Islām, a primarily Muslim Turkish community. Sometimes these were subdivided into Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi or even townsman and peasants. The Arab was also applied to non-Arab nomads (of Kurdish or Turkoman extraction were ethnically termed Arab. Abnā al-'Arab or Awlād al-'Arab applied to the Arabic-speaking townspeople and peasantry to distinguish them from the Turkish ruling class on the one hand and the nomads or Arabs proper on the other. Since the start of the Ottoman rule of the Arabs in 1517 this ethnic division, especially in colloquial Arabic, has remained unchanged although its significance has diminished.
To sum up then: As I see it the terms Arab was the cumulative terms used by the Greeks later Romans to combine the whole of the Semitic people under one label. In Arabia itself, it seems to have been limited to the nomads although the common language of sedentary and nomad Arabians was called Arabic. In my opinion, despite the fact that the Nomadic Arabs spoke Arabic they were illiterate as it was an oral language only. Although according to a later, but still controversial claim, Hira, on Jabal al-Nour, a tribal settlement, where Mohamed received his first revelations, was where the Arabs learnt to put their language in writing. Staying on this theme, in the following six to seven centuries the Arabic language ‘matured’ along with the articulation of Islam using mainly Aristotelian logic and rationality. By the time of Mongolian invasion of Baghdad and the consequent destruction of the Abbasid dynasty, the Arabic language was by then recognised by its rich poetic stanzas and highly stylised opulence entrenching further the Arab speaking population in Arabism since government and institutional language was Arabic. To fit in with the system, Arabism meant both acquiring Islamic culture as well as its language.
Therefore, many people who are true Arabic irrespective whether they are Muslim, Christian or Jewish are Arabic only through inherited social association with their old masters, as a result of their demarcated and social testimonials given to them by the Turks. Although drawing this conclusion may cause many raised eyebrows, but with the current knowledge at my disposal, I firmly believe that to be the case.